Panel 1: Family
Lauren Butler (University of Sheffield, UK)
‘Write verey soon and send me all the news’: The Functions of Letter Writing Between Servants and their Families in the Nineteenth Century
For many domestic servants, life in an employer’s home was isolating and lonely. Even servants who worked as part of a large country house staff were susceptible to homesickness, particularly if they had travelled a long distance to find employment. For literate servants, writing home could offer some reprieve from this feeling of isolation. Although these rare letters’ contents are just as difficult to generalise as the experience of domestic labour itself, conclusions can be drawn about their various functions. Letters between servants and their families were not only a comforting reminder of home. They could also be used to share news, to convey instructions and to enquire about employment opportunities. Some letters, although ostensibly written by a servant to their family member, or vice versa, were actually intended for the attention of their master or mistress. In contentious cases of disobedience, or for servants seeking assistance from their employer, these letters could emphasise their distress, sincerity, or good character. A lack of letter writing could equally perform certain functions: to delay or refrain from conveying bad news, to conform to the wishes of an employer, or to cause offence. This paper will use letters found in the Devonshire Collection archive at Chatsworth, ranging from the correspondence of a maid-of-all-work in Cheshire to that of an illustrious head gardener, to examine the social, sensory, emotive and linguistic functions of servants’ letters.
Aimée Keithan (University of York, UK)
To love and obey: The lives of married servants
The single, young girl making her way as a country house maid and the loyal bachelor butler are servant stereotypes still perpetuated in academia and popular media alike. Traditional scholarship asserts that married country house servants were rare. However, while single people may have been more likely to seek service positions and were the ideal advocated in household management manuals, examining the history of individual households challenges these assumptions. This paper will explore the impact of a variety of marriage situations on servant lives. Kiplin Hall’s (1622-25, North Yorkshire) servant history, from the early-seventeenth to late-nineteenth centuries, presents examples that seem to deviate from the cultural norm, but may have actually represented more common experiences.
In the seventeenth century, instances of marriages between Kiplin’s master and his servants reveal a social complexity that goes far beyond simple class division. Eighteenth-century life at Kiplin included servants who entered into service single, but were subsequently allowed to marry and continued to be employed, suggesting a rather tolerant master-servant relationship. Kiplin’s nineteenth century records highlight the benefits of hiring already married servants. Such servants often had family who could provide a source of reliable labour amidst the ongoing ‘servant problem’. These examples, gathered from a single household over time, push beyond views of the isolated servant into the reality of servant marriage. In doing so they expose an under-explored route to better understanding interpersonal relationships within country house communities.
Fiona Clapperton (University of Sheffield, UK)
‘The Ties that Bind’: Country House Servants and Retirement in the First Half of the Twentieth Century
Shortly before the First World War drew to a close in 1918, George Esmond, Under Butler to the Cavendish family, handed in his notice. In a letter which forms part of a chain of correspondence between Esmond and his colleague, Elsie Saunders (who held the position of Private Secretary to the Duchess of Devonshire), the latter deliberated on what he would do once he left service. She wrote: “I wonder what ideas you have for the future, I imagine you will aim at a very different life …”1
Whilst historical studies most frequently consider the experiences of servants in relation to their work-life, this paper will reflect on the experiences of the retired servant. By drawing on the letters and accounts of various former employees contained within the Cavendish archives at Chatsworth, this paper will consider the occupations, past-times, and domestic situations of retired servants. It will also investigate the extent to which these servants still felt themselves to be connected to the Cavendish family and the Chatsworth Estate. Although Elsie Saunders hints that Esmond may aim at a very different kind of life once he left domestic employment, this paper will argue that experiences of service often had a profound impact on the way in which former employees subsequently lived their lives. It seems that ‘the ties that bind’ were very strong indeed.
Panel 2: Community
Sacha Hepburn (Institute for Historical Research, UK)
A community of workers: support and solidarity among domestic workers in Lusaka
Post-colonial Lusaka’s suburban homes are surrounded by communities of domestic workers. These communities are grounded in relationships between the men, women and children who maintain the city’s homes and care for their inhabitants, and they are forged through time spent socialising during lunch breaks and on the commute to work, through the sharing of food and advice, and through stolen conversations had over garden walls. This paper uses oral history and contemporary observations to examine how domestic workers have participated in these communities and to show the impact that these communities have had on domestic workers’ lives. It focusses on the communities of workers that developed around the many housing developments and blocks of flats that make up the affluent suburb of Kabulonga. The paper argues that within these communities, domestic workers have provided each other with vital material and emotional support, as those involved helped each other to devise solutions to the challenges they faced in the workplace and address problems in their personal lives. It also makes the broader argument that by studying communities of domestic workers in post-colonial African cities, we can better understand how Africa’s urban working poor have attempted to deal with rampant socio-economic inequality and, particularly since the 1980s, the shrinking of state safety nets and the decline of formal labour movements.
Charmian Mansell (Institute for Historical Research, UK)
“Community service”: or, putting the early modern female servant in her place
Service was a typical and defining experience for young women in early modern England. Around 60 per cent of 15- to 24-year-olds were employed in rural and urban, rich and poor households across the country in exchange for wages and bed and board. These households and its members typically provide the backdrop against which female servants are studied. The ‘separate spheres’ model continues to underpin the way in which female servants are studied, their economic and social lives as well as their relationships studied almost exclusively within a domestic context.
Using depositional evidence from church courts, this paper challenges this framework by exploring the range of spaces that female servants moved between, both within and outside the household. It demonstrates the range of working and social activities that took women in service outside the household as well as the friendships and relationships that they built beyond the home. The home itself was not ‘private’ or closed-off: neighbours, friends and suitors were among an assortment of people who passed in and out of the home on a regular basis. Beyond the home, female servants socialised and engaged with the community in streets, fields, churches, fairs and markets. They undertook work that removed them from the home and brought them into contact with a diverse range of people. This paper shows that service was not the closed-off, isolating experience that historians have suggested. Instead, it places servants at the heart of the neighbourhoods in which they lived and the parishes to which they belonged, and in turn, re-evaluates our understanding of both service and the early modern community.
Simon Rastén (University of Aarhus and the National Museum of Denmark)
The lives and relationships of domestic servants in colonial Bengal, c. 1800-1850
The paper explores the social lives of domestic servants in the Danish trading town Serampore in early nineteenth-century Bengal. Inspired by a growing interest in marginalized social groups, the last decades have seen a number of studies relating to domestics in colonial South Asia. These have helped illuminating the complex character of colonial domesticities and emphasized the connection between private households and the larger imperial ambitions of subjugating and civilizing the Indian subcontinent. By viewing the colonial home as a microcosm of the British Empire, focus has been on employer-servant relationships and how these were structured and sometimes contested. However, the paper argues that while the relationship to the master was an important parameter to most servants, other relationships were at least as crucial in their daily lives. These relationships unfolded both within and outside of the household and were not immediately accessible to the employer’s eyes. To reconstruct these more hidden relations, it is necessary to supplement the European diaries and letters with other types of sources. Based on previously overlooked records from the Danish criminal court in Serampore, the paper demonstrates how many domestics were able to move rather freely and socialize publicly at the daily market or, among other places, in the illegal gambling houses. By looking at the social networks and relations that existed beyond the household, the study contributes to a more holistic and multi-sphered understanding of the lives of the large group of individuals working as domestic servants in colonial India.
Hannah Wallace (University of Sheffield, UK)
Finding Character and Community in the Duke of Devonshire’s estate accounts
When reading histories of servants we are often confronted with descriptions of them as invisible or impossible to find. Few records kept by servants survive and as a result their own personal stories are often lost. In comparison, the Duke of Devonshire’s country estate generated numerous records. They accounted for the Duke’s household expenses and his income from the land. Ultimately, they show the Chatsworth estate through the eyes of the landowner. Yet during the eighteenth century the Duke was present at Chatsworth for as little as six weeks of the year and rarely more than twenty. Therefore, this estate community had to survive and prosper without his presence.
The servant population employed by the Cavendish family at their ancestral home was overwhelming male. It was a workforce who lived not behind the gilded widows of Chatsworth house but in cottages on the estate with their wives and children. Here their daily lives were not solely defined by their position as servants, but instead also encompassed the roles of neighbours, farmers and family members. This paper will explore the identities of the servants who lived outside of the big house, their role as part of a wider community and the lives of these servants who spent the majority of the year away from their master. The records kept for this largely absentee landowner reveal an estate which could police itself, individuals who supported their neighbours and ultimately, a community of workers who put their own needs above those of their master’s.
Panel 3: Sociability
Paul Borenberg (Gothenburg University, Sweden)
A servants worth. Self-Worth, Respect and Pride in Seventeenth Century Stockholm
Servants in the early modern period have often been studied as a part of a demographical phenomenon or as a part of a household unit and have been conceptualized and understood as a part of something else, weather it is demographical trends, labor division or household authority. The experience of being a servant, as a position in society, has largely been neglected.
By examining the respect and integrity servants demanded, emphasizing the differences between different kinds of servants in Stockholm in the first half of the seventeenth century I am seeking to map the experience of service as seen from the perspective of the servants. Through the court records of the growing city of Stockholm, the servants participation in upholding the moral standards and good behavior in the streets and households are examined, their ability to vouch for others, and getting others to vouch for them in court cases, as well as servants participating in crimes linked to honor (fighting) or dishonorable behavior (such as stealing). The study underscores the importance of being settled and married, linking the respect a servant demanded to these characteristics rather than those of being a servant or master in and of itself. The servant position is to be understood not as a position of respect or contempt, but rather as a position often (but not always) coinciding with those being seen as adolescent, or deprived of authority. The study is part of a dissertation project aimed at the experience of servants through their work, networks and sense of self-worth.
Kathryne Crossley (University of Oxford, UK)
Oxford College Servants and Leisure 1850-1950
Several columns in the April 8, 1899 issue of Jackson’s Oxford Journal recount the events of the College Servants’ Easter Sports, an annual event which had become ‘one of the chief features of the Easter Bank Holiday’ for nearly twenty years. Local and regional clubs competed in athletics, cricket, football, bowls and rowing; the weekend finished with ceremonies and festivities attended by hundreds, spectators and participants. Easter sports were one of many events in the college servants’ calendar, which also included the annual Oxford Cambridge Servants’ Boat Race, first organized in 1850 and later celebrated its centenary in 1950.
The prominence of Oxford college servants’ sports during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is evidenced by a variety of documentary sources: coverage in local and national publications, portraits of competitors, minutes from organizational committees and writings from servants, undergraduates and fellows. Yet the vibrant history of these activities and their importance to the local community is largely missing from college and university accounts.
Likewise, historians have long considered the significance of athletic competition among male undergraduates in the nineteenth century, while the experience of domestic servants, including their participation in organized sports and competition, has been neglected.
This paper looks to recover servants’ views of their life outside college work, with a particular focus on organized sports and competition. The nature of college servants’ leisure is examined over nearly a century to consider how access to leisure varied over time, changing patterns of leisure over an individual’s working life and how domestic servants and their employers negotiated the details of life outside the workplace
Hanne Østhus (Independent Scholar, Norway)
Friendship and solidarity. Male servants and sociability in eighteenth-century Denmark-Norway
In April 1793, a number of male servants in Oslo were involved in a two-day brawl with a group of journeymen who had insulted the servants by calling them “plate lickers.” The incident reveals how male servants could act as a group who defended its individual members when faced with threats from what was deemed to be outsiders. It also shows how male servants socialized; in this particular case the servants met at an inn to have a common supper.
This paper explores the social lives of male servants in eighteenth-century Denmark-Norway with particular focus on ideas and practices of group solidarity. In advice literature, such habits were not welcomed, but servants were obliged to be cordial and friendly with each other. Friendship also existed between female servants, but male servants were allowed more freedom to seek out places where they could not only bond with other servants but also with other people. Eighteenth-century court records are littered with cases involving male servants who have drunk too much, been caught gambling or been involved in bar fights.
The paper also seeks to address a gap in the literature on the Nordic servant, which has largely focused on women servants. Internationally, however, male servants have become a topic of scholarly interest as recent developments in Europe have seen not only the return on waged household labour, but also an increase in the number of men involved in such work.
Author’s biography: Hanne Østhus received her PhD from the European University Institute in Florence in 2013 and has been Associate Professor at Sogn og Fjordane University College, Norway. In her research, she has investigated the relationship between masters and domestic servants in Denmark and Norway.
Panel 4: Rights
Fae Dussart (University of Sussex, UK)
‘We have been slavered too long’: Domestic servants and unionisation in late 19th century Britain.
In the late nineteenth century increasing numbers of women workers in various trades began to involve themselves with unions in Britain. Domestic workers were relatively unsuccessful at establishing unions, but this was not for want of trying. This paper explores the efforts of some groups of domestic workers to combine in 1872. Unionisation was difficult for those who undertook paid domestic labour. Living and working in the houses of their employers with very little free time, opportunities to meet and discuss combination were limited. Nonetheless, in the late nineteenth century domestic workers did make attempts to unionise, and their efforts caught the attention of the local and national press. These workers’ complaints reflect the particular intimacy of their work and, I will argue, the extent to which their employers sought to control them as a result of the potential power it conferred. I suggest that the public spaces of the union meeting and newspaper provided places where these domestic workers could articulate their feelings about their work and themselves, challenging the ascription of servant identities by employers. It also provided an opportunity to mark what domestic workers themselves saw as the limits of acceptability in the servant/employer relationship.
Victoria Haskins (University of Newcastle, Australia)
“Because most of us work for white people for a living”: Indigenous domestic workers and citizen rights in Australia in the early twentieth century
In 1934 a remarkable petition from a group of women in Western Australia was submitted for the consideration of a Royal Commission into Aboriginal Status and Conditions in that state. Proclaiming themselves “Halfcastes of Broome,” the petitioners declared their resentment at being classed as “natives” and thereby subject to the heavy-handed legislation controlling Aboriginal people. “[M]ost of us work for white people for a living,” they stated, and “by doing so get used to their kind of living.” Indeed, of the multiple grievances the women listed, the first was the restrictions they endured in their employment as domestic workers. The Aboriginal permit system under which they were bound, they complained, prevented them from taking day work for different employers which would have enabled them to “earn more to keep us respectable” as well as allowing them to care for their own families and homes. In conclusion, similarly asserting their abilities to “read write sew crochet laundry also make our own clothes and for other people, also other domestic work,” the petitioners asked the Commissioner to “give us our Freedom and release us from the stigma of a native and make us happy Subjects of this our country.”
Such protests provide an insight into the crucial relationship between domestic service and Indigenous civil rights in Australian history. From the late 1920s, mixed-descent girls brought from the Northern Territory to work as domestic servants in Adelaide in South Australia had started negotiating to be released from similarly restrictive legislation, to the extent that they have been recognised as initiating “the first sustained action” by Indigenous people of the Northern Territory to attain citizenship rights. But this history is not as straightforward a trajectory as it might seem. In Queensland, back at the turn of the century, the Chief Protector of Aboriginals there had expressed his frustration with the “high and mighty” attitudes of the “coloured girls in service in Brisbane,” who were well aware of their rights at that time: “the whole work” of his department for the past few years had been “to play a game of bluff with them,” he stated, and called for the legal powers to control their affairs. By 1924 when a young Queensland domestic worker Ivy K— sought an exemption for herself and her seven-year-old daughter, her application could be peremptorily refused by the authorities on the grounds that “if given freedom, [she] would probably only drift on to the streets.” The tightening restrictions around the lives of Aboriginal people in the early decades of the twentieth century were closely related to the determination to control the mobility of Aboriginal women – particularly mixed-descent women – and the legislative disabilities they suffered would persist until the late 1960s. This paper will explore the connections between Indigenous domestic employment and the curtailing and asserting of Indigenous civil rights more generally. These connections reveal not only the important role of Indigenous domestic work and workers in the history of the Aboriginal civil rights, but point also to domestic service as a site of contestation and potential subversion of the project of colonization.
Bio-note: Victoria Haskins is Professor of History and Director of Purai Global Indigenous and Diaspora Research Studies Centre at the University of Newcastle, Australia. She has published widely in the area of Indigenous domestic service history in Australia and the United States. Her recent publications include Matrons and Maids: Regulating Indian Domestic Service in Tucson, 1914-1934 (2012), the co-edited collection Colonization and Domestic Service: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives (2015), and an article for International Labor and Working-Class History, co-authored with Anne Scrimegour, on an Aboriginal domestic workers’ strike in the late 1940s (2015).
Alissa Klots (European University at St Peterburg, Russia)
Servants into Workers: Domestic Service and the Creation of a New Soviet Person, 1920-1928.
Creating a New Soviet Person was an integral part of the Bolshevik revolutionary project. Numerous maids, nannies and cooks posed a special challenge for the Soviet ideologists intent on carrying it out . While officially recognized as part of the proletariat, domestic servants were believed to possess a special kind of servile subjectivity colloquially known as the “lackey’s soul.” Moreover, most domestics were recent female migrants from the countryside—a category the Bolsheviks viewed as particularly backward. Domestic servants could neither benefit from the healthy influence of a workers’ collective, since they worked in private homes, nor develop a proletarian understanding of their labor because, as Lenin famously stated, household work was “debilitating,” rather than a source of proletarian identity. My paper will analyze the way the Professional Union of People’s Food Service and Dormitory Workers (Narpit) dealt with the challenge of taking domestic servants out of the private homes in order to turn them into conscious Soviet workers. Union activists chose three avenues to turn servants into workers: “union enlightenment,” or teaching domestic workers to be active and responsible union members; “cultural enlightenment,” or raising proletarian consciousness through literacy training and organization of appropriate cultural activities; and creating a sense of belonging to the revolution by writing a revolutionary history of domestic servants. By tracing the lives of two domestic workers-turned-activists, the paper will provide a glimpse into domestic workers’ subjectivities. It will also show the opportunities the Soviet regime provided for domestic workers as well as the limits of the Soviet emancipatory project.
Samita Sen (Jadavpur University, India)
Maids in Movement: Domestic Workers and Collective Action
Following Convention 189 (2011) of the ILO, domestic workers have emerged as a significant category of urban workers and as subjects of both women’s and workers’ politics. They have posed challenging questions of class and gender (and caste), which the mainstream in both these movements have found difficult to answer. While there has been considerable associational activity in different parts of the country, there are also major impediments. Some state governments have resisted unionization. This is particularly true of West Bengal, despite the expansion of unionism in the 35-year long rule of the Left Front. These governments argue that a home cannot be designated a commercial establishment. Domestic workers cannot form trade unions. If they wish to collectivise, they must register as societies.
The problem is that most of the associations of domestic workers, few and small no doubt, are demanding the status of trade unions. In some other parts of the country, the definition of ‘establishment’ or ‘trade’ has not been a hindrance. This paper is based on 180 interviews of domestic workers, employers and union activists in Kolkata (West Bengal). It will explore why domestic workers prefer trade unions to registered societies. It will also explore their participation in organizations and movements. This is a dynamic moment and both working conditions as well as the movement are being continually redefined. It is in this context that the paper will seek to explore the workers own relationship with and responses to attempts at collectivization.
For domestic workers, the question combines the perceived power of trade unions with a more fundamental one of recognition as workers. For too long, their wage relationship has been subsumed under personalized service. The way out of this deadening domesticity, they believe, must take the route of collective politics for which the trade union is the historically validated vehicle. Many believe that participation in unionization alone will allow them to redefine the constraining definitions of gender imposed upon them by the nature of their work.
Panel 5: Leisure
Jessica Davidson (University of Oxford, UK)
‘Gaily drest in all your best, to spend your holiday’: Domestic Servants at the Provincial Fair
Domestic servants were a key constituent group of visitors at fairs in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The annual local fair was a rare and widely accepted day off from every day working life, a moment of freedom from routine. Contemporary diaries regularly mention when servants attended fairs, and often mention what they did there. Servants appear frequently as the protagonists in ballads, stories and images about fairs. While statue fairs have been explored as a site for seeking employment, this paper will investigate the role of the fair in the social lives of domestic servants. The fair was an opportunity for servants to engage with aspects of their identity beyond that of employee; here they were family members, lovers, pleasure seekers, consumers of goods and entertainment. Affective relationships were forged and sustained at fairs, and they were an opportunity to dress in ones best clothes and join a varied crowd of visitors. On the other hand, the fair could also be a site where reputations were compromised; servants also appear in records of vice and crime at these events. On the whole, a study of the fair offers a window into the lives of domestic servants beyond the world of work, and in particular an opportunity to explore the choices they made when their time was actually their own.
Jenny Dyer (Oxford Brookes University, UK)
“I have scarce time allow’d to Eat drink or sleep”: free time, leisure and play for child servants in England c.1760–1820
The paper concerns one aspect of a wider study of child servants in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: opportunities for recreation and play. Such opportunities were constrained by moral strictures designed to rescue the children of the poor from idleness or worse. Indentures and contracts which governed conditions of children in service said nothing of their entitlement to free time. A more humane tradition co-existed, however, which advised that some provision of leisure for the young was beneficial for all involved. Some masters/mistresses arranged outings for their households: Parson Woodforde took his servants, including his thirteen year-old servant boy Jackie Warton, to see the colourful procession held in Norwich for the city’s patron saint: Mary Hardy’s youngest maid and servant boy went with her own children to see Gingell’s puppet show. This was hardly, however, the ‘rough and tumble’ with their peers which children missed from earlier childhood. This paper shows how young servants showed much ingenuity in devising ways to escape the clutches of household supervision or at least contrived to make every-day routines more fun. Others found consolation in reading and singing. This was easier for boys, given the gendered duties of domestic work which took them beyond the household. Nevertheless, a handwritten note which it became necessary to add to the margin of indentures for all apprentices from the Birmingham Blue Coat School, insisted that they attend Church on Sundays, suggesting that both girls and boys were finding more appealing ways of spending what leisure they had.
Fanny Louvier (University of Oxford, UK)
From the servants’ ball to the dance hall: French and British servants’ leisure in the interwar period
This paper explores the role of leisure in shaping French and British female servants’ identity during the interwar period. Historians, drawing on institutional sources, have overemphasised the role of servants’ clubs and regional associations in servants’ leisure. In contrast, this paper draws upon autobiographical sources to investigate the servants’ independence from these institutions. Focusing on dance, it compares the traditional description of servants’ dances in newspapers and club archives to the servants’ testimonies. Following servants’ accounts of a range of venues—from mainstream dance halls to shabby jazz clubs—it depicts the diverse social world that servants frequented. These stories contradict the view that servants were solely defined by their occupational identity, even outside work, and reveal a more complex identity, with an acute sense of youth at its heart.
Panel 6: Mobility
Olivia Robinson (University of Oxford, UK)
“While seeking a situation”: cross-cultural experiences of out-of-work foreign domestics in London, c.1880–1930
When domestic servant women found themselves out of work or between jobs, many simply went home to their parents, but for the thousands of foreign servants in London during the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this was not a viable option. Instead, many found accommodation in the hostel-like ‘homes’ set up for non-British groups of working women by religiously-motivated organisations. Reading non-personal sources against the grain, this paper explores how these spaces functioned beyond their religious mission and became places of cross-cultural contact, linking the domestic to the global. The paper is thus an attempt to show that gaps in the work record can be rich opportunities for revealing the life experiences of domestic servants beyond their own homes and those of their employers.
Stephen Sparks (University of Johannesburg, South Africa)
‘Another location in the white town’ Domestic servants, sociability and the politics of space in an Apartheid town
William Beinart once suggested that when African domestic servants had time off on weekends under Apartheid South Africa’s suburbs ‘looked more black than white’. This paper puts meat on the bones of this claim, and moves beyond the focus on labour relations in studies of South African domestic workers, instead exploring the social lives and contested politics of space flowing from the fact of white dependence on African female domestic workers in Apartheid era Sasolburg, a company town established by South African state oil corporation in the 1950s. In the typical South African segregationist pattern the town of Sasolburg was reserved for white residents, while nearby Zamdela township predominantly housed male African workers who worked at the nearby oil plant. Whatever the designs of Apartheid segregationists neither Sasolburg nor the female domestic workers who lived in the backyards of the homes of white residents there were sealed off from the African men compounded in Zamdela. A subterranean sociability centered round Sasolburg’s servant quarters developed, in which leisure, courtship and prostitution featured centrally. This sub-culture was subversive of Sasolburg’s respectable pretences.
Kathryn Walchester (Liverpool John Moores University, UK)
‘No man upon earth more happy than me’; sociability and the travelling servant in the late eighteenth century
While the prominence of domestic servants has been discussed extensively in recent decades and nuanced and diachronic models addressing their so-called ‘invisibility’ within the home established, there has been little consideration of the representation and role of servants away from their domestic setting (Robbins, 1993; Chamberlain, 2007; Lethbridge, 2013). Scholars have identified the large numbers of British servants who accompanied their employers on ‘Grand Tours’, but little has been written about the role and representation of servants, who played an intrinsic part in facilitating the leisure travels of the upper-classes (Black, 1992; Clifford, 1997).
This paper focuses on the travels of three menservants who made journeys to the European Continent and beyond between 1765 and 1793 accompanying their employers. The journals of John Macdonald, Thomas Addison, Edmund Dewes and James Thoburn reveal some of the challenges as well as the pleasure and opportunities which travel afforded servants during this period. Moreover, in their descriptions of lengthy stays in foreign cities, the accounts by these servants indicate the extent to which British servants engaged with complex social networks abroad. Considering the experience of non-leisure travel, this paper confronts some of the implications and issues raised by travelling and working, including servants’ representations of their encounters with difference.
Special Session 1
Laura Humphreys (Science Museum, London, UK) & Tessa Chynoweth (Birmingham Museums, UK)
Swept under the Carpet? Representing Domestic Servants in Museums
Looking at domestic workers ‘beyond the home’ poses an interesting question for museums; in cultural institutions which are no longer – or were never – a home, do servants have a place?
Despite being a major professional group in both the past and the present, domestic workers are often overlooked or over-simplified in museum contexts, and defined only in terms of their professional identity. In many historic houses, former ‘service spaces’ have been converted into offices and storage to preserve more opulent ‘family’ rooms (where servants rarely feature), and in non-historic house museums, domestic workers are very rarely the subject of galleries or exhibitions. The histories on display are situated within spaces of domesticity; the servant beyond their service is often lost.
Building on the 2016 exhibition Swept Under the Carpet: Servants in London Households 1600-2000 held at the Geffrye Museum of the Home, this paper will explore the challenges and opportunities of representing domestic servants and service in a museum context. It will talk about balancing audience expectations with the realities and continuities of paid domestic work, and how to represent people beyond their professional lives in the complicated context of working and (often) living in someone else’s house.
Special Session 2
Rachel Randall (University of Oxford, UK)
‘It’s very difficult to love and not be well treated, respected, valued’: Testimonies of Domestic Workers in Contemporary Brazilian Cultural and Digital Production
Since the introduction of improved legal protections for domestic workers in Brazil in 2012, maids and nannies have become figures of socio-cultural contention, as these amendments and socio-economic pressures have led to rapid changes to the nature of domestic labour. Against the backdrop of a heightened awareness of the challenges these employees face, a plethora of films, experimental documentaries and online communities have begun to reflect on: the significant socio-cultural legacy of housemaids’ work; the importance of domestic autonomy for these workers; and the potential for filmic and virtual testimonies to raise awareness of labour exploitation, and race- and class-based discrimination. This paper will explore three collaborative cultural productions, made in conjunction with domestic workers, which have shed light on the nature of domestic labour in Brazil. The experimental ethnographic documentaries Babás [Nannnies] (Consuelo Lins, 2010) and Doméstica [Housemaids] (Gabriel Mascaro, 2012) raise ethical concerns about how to represent vulnerable workers and address the links between domestic work and the colonial period in Brazil. Nonetheless, they also demonstrate how affective ties between maids or nannies and the families for whom they care can complicate entrenched class-, race- and gender- boundaries. Eu empregada doméstica, an online initiative founded by rapper and domestic worker ‘Preta-Rara’ has provoked an outpouring of testimonies from housemaids themselves, as well as others. It has drawn attention to the prejudices that domestic workers suffer and has recently culminated in the publication of a ‘Guide to Domestic Workers’ Rights’.